I am reminded of a lighthearted moment that I shared with my colleagues and though the context of the conversation escapes me, I remember boastfully beginning my statement with “WE MEN”. Laughter consumed the room. Reflecting more intently and critically on those WORDS for the purposes of this series, I am compelled to dig deeper and to be more introspective on what I feel it truly means to be a “man”; specifically one who works within the realm of student affairs. To speak to the collective experiences of those who identify as male would be impossible as our lived experiences are vastly different simply because we are different. This contribution is my attempt to identify and grapple with the challenges, opportunities as I see them, and examine my privilege and how it may impact the work we do. I seek to explore how others and I can leverage our unearned privilege towards equity, discuss the challenges of daring greatly, and lastly highlight the importance of engaging in dialogues around the performance of masculinity with our young college men.
There’s not many of us but there are plenty of us
What may or may not be apparent depending on your level of awareness is that those who identify as male are in a smaller group when compared to women in student affairs. What predispositions and assumptions does my gender identity and expression provide me? Well, it affords me a seat at the proverbial table. In the words of Olivia Pope (Scandal), I am assumed to be, “formidable, bold, or right.” Understanding my privilege in this way offers me an opportunity to leverage it in a way that advocates for the otherwise marginalized groups and speaks truth to power.
With the heightened sense of awareness to domestic violence in light of Ray Rice’s very public incident as well as the NFL’s apathetic response, men should feel obligated to take a stance and join forces with women who have been the leaders of the anti-domestic violence movement. What is important to understand is that Rice’s case is not an isolated one and that instances like this are happening in our own backyards — on our campuses. It is my belief that Commissioner Rodger Goodell’s indifference was a missed opportunity to demonstrate leadership on a national platform. Instead, his response in my opinion further points to why this remains a plaguing issue in our society. Commissioner Goodell failed where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver succeeded in exercising the type of moral conviction needed in addressing serious issues.
Leaders in the student affairs field, men in particular, cannot afford the luxury of repeating the mistakes of Goodell and others who chose not to understand the urgency of addressing sexual and domestic violence. We must display better leadership and proactive tactics on our campuses. After all, we are not just helpers but educators who play a critical role in shaping tomorrow’s leadership. Also, statistically speaking men are the main perpetrators and we who understand this should not idly stand by while these deplorable acts are taking place. In my short time as a professional, I have been fortunate to witness men who have found ways to lend their voices to causes without attempting to speak for those affected.
In surveying the senior level administrative offices and boards of trustees with respect to higher education governance, it would probably come as no surprise to discover that men govern the majority of them. Generally and historically speaking, the policies at colleges and universities around the country have been determined by men. In an effort to move our institutions forward in creating more accepting and inclusive environments, it takes courageous men to challenge the enactment of policies that are seemingly effective at disenfranchising certain groups. In order to be fully inclusive I submit that it takes expanding leadership to include women who will broaden the perspective and therefore enhance the policies – meaning being intentional about our hiring practices. We can and should assert our agency and privilege in moments such as these. However, it is not enough to decide to engage in activities and allyship. In attempting to serve as an ally, we as men must first be willing to hold ourselves accountable before we can hold the same expectations of others. I found in my experiences that we can do this by taking the time to “listen” for that is the closest that we can ever get to have a frame of reference of what it is like to be said oppressed group. I am not suggesting that we as men need to be the leading voices for all issues affecting women but offering our support through the provision of platforms in my opinion demonstrates a genuine commitment of advocacy. If we should find ourselves as the leading voice, we should be intentional in articulating the concerns in a way that truly conveys their concerns – not our own interpretations of them. True allyship requires both humility and vulnerability.
Last year at #ACPA14, those of us fortunate enough to hear Brene Brown speak were challenged to “dare greatly” – to courageously engage in the act of rendering ourselves vulnerable. As a man, who like many has been socialized and in many ways subscribes to traditional gender norms of what it means to be a man: the showing of no weakness, emotions, or empathy – exercising vulnerability proves challenging. It has been because of my willingness to engage in research, ask questions, and to listen with an open heart to the stories of others that has led to paradigmatic shifts in this area. I still find that practicing vulnerability can be difficult but I am maintaining my resolve to engage in the act. As a black male educator, I often wrestle with the questions of: How do I openly express my outrage at the circumstances of so many men of color at the hands of police brutality; why should I have to be conscious of wearing my hoodie at night as I walk back to my apartment from the co-rec; why is it that I am privy to assumptions before I even open my mouth to say hello at social or work-related functions?
With so much happening at one time: in me, through me, around me daily, there are times when I just need to process; preferably with those who can relate to my experiences. What I took away from Brene though is that you have to be cautious about what you disclose and with whom you disclose. One system of support for me has been my band of brothers from graduate school that has been dubbed as the “BroCo.” Sure, while our salient identity as males in a female dominated learning space was a shared experience, it was the ability to find a small community where we could confront, articulate and furthermore understand our reality as men in this field in authentic fashion free of judgment and agenda that was powerful and meaningful. What I appreciate about the BroCo. is that there is no chief among us. We are all equals and there is no competiveness despite being in the same field. Within the group there is no dominant narrative. There are shared stories that help each of us further explore our identities and what it means to live our most authentic lives. It was and is liberating to be able to speak openly, candidly, and unapologetically about what I am experiencing as the only way out of any circumstance is through.
In these moments I learned that there is power in sharing our story; that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay; that we have to be courageous enough to wrestle with what we don’t know so that we can be intentional about acting on what we do know. I chose to mention my brothers not because I have not learned the practice of vulnerability from women, but rather to display how the men in this field have benefited from applying this practice. As such, it is up to us as men in this field to share our stories and the lessons learned with our young college men so that we can build them up to be what society in essence has always expected them to be – Bravehearts.
While some men find bravery in bravado it’s important for young college men to see that there is equally as much bravery in vulnerability. Consider this; if we as professional males struggle with answering the question of what it means to be a man, I can only imagine the dissonance that many of our young college men are experiencing in their development as there are many conflicting messages about the performance of masculinity. For example, as a young man growing up, there were many ways to exhibit bravery: talking about emotions was not one of them – at least it wasn’t for me. I suspect that it can’t be easy for young college men who also may subscribe to some of the very same ideals and are at the early stages of constructing their identities. What I find to be particularly problematic is that many of our young college men are not taught how to appropriately cope especially when in the midst of shipwreck moments. No, “shipwreck moments” are not a monolithic experience granted only to women and how we are taught to deal and cope is also nuanced.
Therein lies another opportunity as men within the profession to connect and build with young men in safe spaces where we can interrogate our own beliefs around what their masculinity performance should look like. College men need to know that such public and private spaces for this kind of inward journey exists for them and that it is okay to situate themselves within them. They need to see other men with varying other identities modeling care, compassion, a nurturing spirit, and demonstrating empathy. If these spaces do not exist on our campuses, then we should be actively pushing for their creation. There are multiple ways to be men and we have a chance to engage our young college men in a way that is healthy and helps them develop the emotional maturity and intelligence that most women have already learned. Our journey is now their journey and as iron sharpens iron, our task is to teach them and each other how to navigate manhood with courage.